I read Garth Greenwell’s newest book, Cleanness, in two fierce bouts. The first was a long weekend in my apartment, spent mostly in my bed alone, and the second was on tour for my own book. During that second leg, I was in El Paso, Truth or Consequences, and Santa Fe, sunning my face in the desert, reconnecting with old friends, eating every spicy thing I could, sleeping butt-to-butt with my kid in various double beds, and eventually meeting up with my queer family—my kid’s god moms and dearest friends. Cleanness was an excellent companion. It got me through.
I could have read Cleanness in a day, and it’s likely you’ll do just that because it’s hard to put down. But I was doing what I sometimes do with lovers; I was taking my time with it because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to savor every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter, and I wanted to love the body of that book, the way Greenwell’s characters love each other’s bodies. It was the right and queer thing to do.
At the center of Cleanness is the word “gospodar,” which is also the title of the second chapter. The narrator, an American teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria, tells us it is the Bulgarian word for “master or lord, but in his language it had a resonance it would have lacked in my own, partaking of the everyday (Gospodine, my students say in greeting, mister or sir) and of the scented chant of the cathedral.” The word tilts and steadies us throughout the book, and it destabilizes the many vexed and mundane roles we all inhabit (knowingly or unknowingly): dom and sub, master and servant, teacher and student, lover and parent, tourist and citizen, writer and reader. The book seems to ask us, in subtle, erotic, beautifully honest ways, what it means to traffic in these roles and how none of them quite ever fit because we are all so much more fluid than they allow us to be.
“Gospodar” begins as a hookup, a dom-sub scene without safe words or even a shared language in which to negotiate desire and pain. It doesn’t go as we might have hoped, but then again, isn’t that the way of so many desires? As Greenwell says in an interview with Mitzi Angel, “In this cultural moment, when we’re having important conversations about sex and power and consent, I worry that trauma has become a kind of dominant narrative of sex.” Trauma and sex are a part of this chapter, but as the narrator admits, this struggle with a violent dom is also about lowliness, debasement, the dog—I’ll say more on dogs in the book shortly—in all of us:
There was no lowest place, I thought, I would strike ground only to feel it give way gaping beneath me, and I felt with a new fear how little sense of myself I have, how there was no end to what I could want or to the punishment I would seek… and then I stood and turned back to the boulevard, composing as best I could my human face.
I haven’t ever read anything like this; it’s tender and rough, slow and fast, hot and scary, and when I finished it I held it to my heart in gratitude to see kink laid bare, sex and violence made manifest for all of us to see, and in awe of what it must have taken to write it. There’s a real rupture in this chapter, and it took me some time to process it, to sit in the scene of it. It felt like a working through for me of some of my own sexual traumas. A healing by way of witnessing. Those moments in bedrooms where something goes wrong. As I write this, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford comes to mind—her story made public, the ordeal a ritual of sorts. Greenwell tells his story on the narrator’s terms, and that makes all the difference.
In the second-to-last chapter of the book, “Little Saint,” Greenwell offers a kind of flipped mirror to the brutal beauty of “Gospodar.” It’s another hookup, but the narrator plays the dom this time (all hail switches!) and we come to understand something so rarely written in contemporary literary novels: the transformation of flesh, the sacrament of sexual experience, of laying oneself out bare to be fucked and do the fucking, and how it can transform us better than any religion. Greenwell writes:
When you’re being used like that you become an object, which is the pleasure of it, your only role is to be the best object you can be, to keep your lips wrapped around your teeth, to curl your tongue to make the right aperture, now tighter and now more ample; you have to become a hole, which was what he had said he wanted.
It was about joy, the story he would tell me, but it wasn’t joy I saw as he moved back and forth between my cock and my hand, or not only joy.
And later still:
I hammered into him as I felt it rise in me, that cruelty and rage, that acid grief, and when I came I felt him come beneath me, his body shaking, I heard him give a cry of joy… I put my hand over my face, which was wet with tears. I was embarrassed, I didn’t want him to see me, when he asked what was wrong I couldn’t answer.
And at the end of the story, Greenwell give us this bit of wisdom from the sweet, fuckable mouth of Little Saint, a character who loves without shame and is one of my favorites in all of literature (we don’t talk about the joy of subbing enough!):
He laughed too, rolling on top of me, still licking me, and I realized that I had been wrong before; it [the story] did have an end, what I had felt, its end was here, he had brought me here. Finally, he laid his head on my chest. Don’t be like that, he said again as I put my arms around him. Do you see? You don’t have to be like that, he said. You can be like this.
There is so much in the “that” and “this.” The overlap of joy and pain, of giving and receiving, and of being an animal and object all at once.
I suppose there will be prudes who will call Cleanness pornography or some who claim to be too squeamish for this kind of joy. Isn’t this what the religious right fears most about us, that we will die happier and with more joy than they will have ever known? Isn’t this why they try to crush us still? I like porn, mostly as an arousal device, and granted much of what I watch is queer, feminist, and amateur, but I am curious about American (straight?) cultural desires to see sex as romcom-safe, jokey, or just edited out altogether. I wonder too about the kinds of books that make millions off of fake kink and virgin fetishes (e.g. Fifty Shades of Gray and Twilight) while quieter queer books like Cleanness and its every bit as perfect prequel, What Belongs to You, have smaller audiences. Perhaps we’re in a break-out moment.
When my agent began to send my novel, The Not Wives, out to big five publishers, some of the feedback was that the sex was “too much” and “too graphic,” and while touring I was asked once or twice if I thought of my book as erotica, an attempt I think to trick me into shaming my excellent genre peers. It’s hard to write hot, real sex—and for queer folks, it remains a political act. To steel ourselves, my agent often compared my book to Garth’s in its frank sexuality and open-heartedness. I was honored and, during that horrible and exciting time of being out on submission, I came to think of myself as a Lady Greenwell, or a queen in the House of Garth. We all need our houses and queens, I suppose.
But this book is not just about sex and desire. Greenwell also explores the ways in which teachers are asked to be mentors and often feel ill-equipped to do so, and must both hide their sexuality and also serve as a mentor for the few who can see it. I am so grateful for these parts of the book, moments when the façade of teacher and mentor slips, or when the teacher is asked for things that they cannot possibly give. We have so few conversations about the emotional toil of teaching, the ways it can reduce you to a set of behaviors that are prescribed by the word “gospodar.” We teachers find our bodies desexualized or dematerialized, are asked to care but not care too much, and often serve as unpaid therapists and surrogate parents. The slippage is so rarely dealt with, especially in the context of underpaid tutors, adjuncts, contract faculty, and high school teachers, who are disdained almost as much as sex workers in this country, and mostly paid less. Here’s Greenwell’s narrator in “Mentor,” the first chapter of the novel:
That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have all force beyond all intention, and not only our actions but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we’ve done.
If that isn’t teaching, I don’t know what is.
Running parallel to his teaching is the narrator’s great love affair with R., whom he meets first as a hook-up that turns into something neither of them expects. The second section of the book is called “Loving R.” and those three chapters, “Cleanness,” “The Frog King,” and “Valediction,” pull us in closely. I may have fallen in love with R. myself, the writing is so intimate and vulnerable. The time and country is a closeted one, and much of the book is the narrator and R. negotiating public and private landscapes, cafes, restaurants, hallways, bedrooms, and hotel rooms. In “Cleanness,” R. reveals a terrible secret on a windy night, as the lovers pretend to be just friends in a local restaurant. Back at the narrator’s apartment there’s an opening-up, an honest and passionate fucking that Greenwell writes with characteristic tenderness. And after “I love you,” the narrator thinks, “Anything I am you have use for is yours.”
What happens when a love affair is allowed to breathe? When a couple can come out of the closet? In “The Frog King,” Greenwell launches us into the mundane things that matter so much when you are not allowed them—Christmas presents, sharing a hotel breakfast, making out at a bus stop in Bologna in public:
But he held me tight, kissing me with urgency, until I realized that exposure was the point, that he wanted to show off, here where nobody knew him, where he could be anonymous and free, could live out an ideal of candor.
A day trip to Venice, art, and more rough and tender fucking. Central to these chapters is also the question of what their relationship can be—whether it can last; whether it can survive their distance, their histories, their student and teacher life, and their own culturally informed expectations of what two men can have together.
I’ve struggled to write this review. I want it to be good and true to Greenwell, who I admire so very much. I suppose there is the queer girl in me who wants to impress the queer boy. If we are to think of reviews as acts of love, as ways of seeing, then I want you to see well. But there is also no way I can replicate for you what you must now go out and buy and read for yourself. I finished this review on New Year’s Day but I am dithering because there is so much in the book I can’t convey to you. There are the old streets and the loneliness of living abroad and trying to make a life for yourself. There are writer’s retreats, naked priests, and paintings churned out at the speed of shit, which make the narrator wonder what it means to make anything at all, pages upon pages like “stacking grains of sand.” Protests overtake the country, and the narrator, in his privilege, must decide who he stands for in the midst of a gay bashing. The chapter “Decent People” made me think of so much recent protest in this country and around the world—when crowds or police turn violent and what democracy really looks like these days, both its ideal and its reality.
On the last day of 2019, I had drinks with close friends, wives, a couple I’ve known forever, and then I came home to be on my own and watch Call Me By Your Name. I don’t know why I was so late to that movie. I cried thinking about queer love, longing, and desire. How slow it can be and how late we come to it. I came out three years ago, and though I am happier to be more fully myself, I struggle with the startling new solitude of my queerer life. I wondered if longing and loneliness are innate to queerness—and then I set that impossible question aside to think about dogs.
In “The Frog King,” R. and the narrator feed one of the many stray dogs of Sofia on Christmas Day. R. names her Lilliyana. In the final chapter of the book, “An Evening Out,” the narrator, drunk and ashamed after a flirtation with a former student at a club, stumbles back to campus. He is alone except for a stray dog he calls Mama. Once the house dog of another teacher, she begs to be let in and he acquiesces. Together they fall asleep on the floor:
Okay, Mama, I said again, you sleep there, we’ll sleep and in the morning we’ll feel better… I lowered myself to the floor, I stretched myself out beside her and laid one hand on her flank.
Though it might be easy to overlook these two scenes with dogs, they are central to Cleanness. Mama and the narrator comprise the last four pages of the book. Finding the stray, feeding her, petting her, and loving her when no one else will are acts of kindness and visibility the narrator and R. allow themselves. And when the narrator, ashamed at his pass at a former student, lets Mama into the house, he is also welcoming his animal self. To be fully sexual is to welcome the stray in each of us, to touch her and to love her, even if no one else can.
To lie down with dogs. If you lie with dogs you’ll get fleas. Now I wanna be your dog. To be lowdown and dirty, to act like a dog. Dawg. I’d just held a Christmas Eve party called “Strays, Gays, and Kids.” To be queer is to stray. To love deeply is to lie down, to go low. All of the dogs which are the babies of so many queer couples. I googled, “Does Robin fuck a dog at the end of Nightwood?” because I’d loved that book in graduate school and had been utterly baffled by the ending. I reread it and thought of Greenwell and Djuna Barnes in the long lineage of dog lovers. Of strays who get inside your heart, dogs at the table, no longer content with scraps. Outsiders coming in the house and taking it over. I wondered: is Greenwell a Cancer like me? Are we all building new houses in these books? My neck hurt from writing too much. It’s 2020. Go outside. Walk your dog, or yourself who is also a dog. Go get Cleanness and feed a stray.